As India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gears up for next year’s general election, its political dominance would seem to grant it a great many advantages over the opposition. Most obviously, the party commands a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament)—the first single-party majority obtained in three decades. Its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, enjoys widespread popularity despite policy setbacks associated with demonetization and the patchy rollout of the landmark Goods and Services Tax. At the state level, the BJP has doggedly worked to expand its footprint to parts of the country where it has not traditionally held sway. Today, the BJP and its allies govern in twenty of India’s twenty-nine states—a far cry from four years ago, when they called only eight states their own.
While the BJP is undoubtedly the front-runner in 2019, a closer look at the party’s political standing suggests its current dominance could counterintuitively be a liability rather than an asset. For starters, the conditions that paved the way for a historic mandate in 2014 are unlikely to rematerialize in 2019. That year presented something akin to a perfect electoral storm—a historically unpopular Congress Party, a lagging economy, and a compelling, charismatic prime ministerial candidate in Modi. The end result was a once-in-a-generation electoral rout. This triumph, in turn, rested on running the table in a relatively small number of states—a feat many party sympathizers doubt can be replicated.
Furthermore, incumbency is something of a double-edged sword in India. In many democracies, incumbency provides politicians numerous tools with which they can perpetuate their political power. In the United States, for instance, name recognition and the perks of office, as well as general voter inertia, provide incumbents with a decisive leg up when it comes to reelection. In India, research suggests that incumbent politicians are not just vulnerable—in many instances they are affirmatively disadvantaged. The BJP’s growing presence in India’s states helps offset the geographic concentration of its 2014 performance, but it does not fully inoculate the party from voter hostility; history suggests that state incumbency, under certain conditions, can also adversely impact a party’s chances in national elections. These indirect costs of ruling complicate the party’s electoral math; for a ruling party linking its stature to its consistent numerical strength in parliament, the negative spillovers linked to state incumbency is a source of concern.
Can Lightning Strike Twice?
The first challenge the BJP faces is to repeat its dominance in its traditional strongholds. In the 2014 election, the BJP captured 282 seats out of the 428 seats it contested nationally (or 66 percent). The party relied on coalition allies to contest another 112 constituencies (out of the 543 directly elected seats in the Lok Sabha). While the BJP made inroads in new territory—stretching from Tamil Nadu in the south to Assam in the east and Jammu and Kashmir in the north—most of its victories were concentrated in north and west India. In 2014, just eight states—Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh—accounted for 76 percent of the BJP’s parliamentary tally. All together, these states account for 273 seats, of which the BJP won 216 (nearly 80 percent). The efficiency with which the BJP translated votes into seats evinced the concentrated character of the party’s victory: with just 31 percent of all votes countrywide, it earned 52 percent of parliamentary seats (see figure 1).
In addition, the BJP’s sweep in these core states rested in large measure on the Modi wave—a factor that is expected to be less potent in 2019. While Modi remains popular, the recent Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey found that support for the prime minister is tapering somewhat. As many as 44 percent in May 2017 named Modi as their preferred prime ministerial choice. One year later, that percentage had declined to 34 percent—marginally lower than where it stood in 2014, at 36 percent. The survey also notes that dissatisfaction with the Modi government has risen in the country’s most populous states, regardless of region. A further deepening of these trends would suggest that some of Modi’s shine has worn off with the electorate.
The Congress Party’s Historic Unpopularity in 2014
Consider constituencies where the BJP and the Congress were the top two finishers; these head-to-head contests are good indicators of the parties’ relative popularity. In 2014, there were 189 such contests; of these, the BJP won 166, or 87 percent. The country had not witnessed such a lopsided battle since 1984 (see figure 2)—when the Congress swept to power in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, winning 98 percent of direct BJP-Congress contests (in fairness, that was the first time the BJP had contested general elections as a party). The BJP’s decisive advantage over the Congress in 2014 can also be seen in the average margin of victory of their head-to-head contests, which touched 18 percent (again, the largest margin since 1984).
Today, the BJP and its allies maintain a sizable popularity advantage over their Congress counterparts, according to the Lokniti survey, but the gap is closing (see figure 3). In May 2017, 45 percent of respondents intended to vote for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) while just 26 percent sided with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA); 29 percent favored other, unaffiliated parties. One year later, the NDA’s share dropped to 37 percent while the UPA’s share grew to 31 percent (and the share belonging to other parties crept up to 32 percent). At least part of the NDA’s decline can be attributed to the decision of the Telugu Desam Party, the ruling party in the state of Andhra Pradesh, to exit the coalition.
The first two factors—the concentrated nature of the BJP’s victory and the historic unpopularity of the Congress—are specific to the 2014 election contest. But there are also broader structural dynamics of anti-incumbency that shape the playing field. Anti-incumbency is a favored bugbear of election analysts in India, who regularly toss it out as an explanation for nearly every underwhelming performance by a ruling party. But that loose talk conflates its multiple dimensions. Voters may punish individual incumbent candidates or ruling parties, and partisan incumbency in one tier of government may affect elections at another.
One approach by Nirmala Ravishankar disaggregates the negative effects of incumbency in national elections into direct and indirect costs, with a focus on how ruling parties fare. The direct cost of ruling is simply the impact of belonging to the national ruling party on an individual incumbent’s performance in parliamentary elections. According to Ravishankar’s calculations based on data from 1977 to 2004, an affiliation with the national ruling party reduces a member of parliament’s (MP’s) chances of reelection by 9 percentage points. Incumbents from the ruling party have a fifty-fifty shot at returning to parliament, whereas non-ruling-party incumbents have a slightly better shot at winning reelection.
While the precise drivers of anti-incumbent sentiment are not well specified, there are many possibilities. The declining fortune of incumbents appears to be a post-1991 phenomenon, prior to which a Congress affiliation was the most reliable method of ensuring reelection. As the Congress’s dominance eroded and uncertainty about who would take power in New Delhi soared, no single party label had a decisive advantage. In addition, given the centralized nature of Indian political parties, individual MPs have relatively little room to maneuver. Their ability to develop an individual brand might matter less than their party’s overall reputation, which can ebb and flow with time. Another possibility is voter frustration at incumbents for consistently failing to live up to their pre-electoral promises. Whatever the precise mechanism, the data suggest that an affiliation with the ruling party has become a net negative for incumbent parliamentarians.
Indirect Costs of Ruling
But incumbency may also have indirect effects, in which party control at the state level affects how the state votes in national elections. This is relevant for evaluating how the BJP’s expanded presence could impact the national vote.
On first glance, a party’s performance in national elections is unaffected by its affiliation with a state-ruling party. Specifically, state-ruling parties appear to do just as well as opposition parties in the state when those same parties contest national parliamentary polls. But, as Ravishankar notes, this naive analysis ignores the role of timing. In many democracies around the world, governments enjoy a honeymoon period during their first two years in office when their popularity is at its apex (and perhaps when voters decide that having the same party rule at different levels of government is a plus). After this initial honeymoon period subsides, the party’s standing declines.
This is exactly what occurs in the Indian context. If a national election is held in the first year of a state government’s tenure, the state-ruling party does very well in national polls: state-ruling parties are 18 percent more likely to win election at the national level than their colleagues out of government. Those effects remain positive through the state government’s second year in office, after which incumbency becomes a liability. After year three of a government’s tenure, the state-ruling party begins to suffer in national elections, and that penalty increases as the gap grows between the state and national election. For the BJP, this means that in states like Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra (where it is currently in power until late 2019/early 2020), the party will potentially face an uphill battle since it will be in the twilight of its tenure. Political control of states can provide many benefits—shaping policies at the subnational level, tilting the balance of power in the Rajya Sabha (the indirectly elected upper house of parliament), and providing new patronage opportunities—but it can also have a negative impact on national elections.
This interaction between state and national political performance will be a dynamic worth watching in the months ahead. Indeed, the honeymoon effect means that the state assembly elections later this year in the Hindi belt states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan will be highly informative with respect to how those states will vote in the 2019 general elections. Parties that take power in each of those states in 2018 would be in the early stages of their honeymoon periods, allowing them to capitalize when those states go to polls for the Lok Sabha elections just a few months later. Indeed, election data from these three states over the last three election cycles indicate, in every case, that the party that performed better in the state assembly polls had the upper hand in national elections—whether measured by vote share, seat share, or successfully forming the government (see figure 4). While the late 2018 state assembly polls in these three states might not predict the overall verdict, they are likely to be a good barometer of how those states will vote in the general election.
Arguments relying on anti-incumbency are not ironclad but probabilistic statements; that is, they suggest what is likely to happen, on average, within some margin of error. But there are certainly individual outliers. Furthermore, speculation about voters’ preferences for a party or prime ministerial candidate at this stage is fully abstracted from campaign effects. As demonstrated in recent state elections in both Gujarat and Karnataka, Modi’s intensive campaigning moved the needle in the BJP’s favor. In addition, the identity of the candidate on the ballot, their party’s alliance, and the choice set of prime ministerial candidates does meaningfully shape voting decisions. Party leaders can try to minimize anti-incumbency by denying many of their elected members an opportunity to stand for reelection, a common strategy in Indian politics. However, research by Alexander Lee suggests that ushering in fresh faces to contest elections only diminishes, but does not eliminate, the penalty of an affiliation with the national ruling party.
History suggests that incumbency tends to hurt ruling party politicians in India more than it helps. To the extent that this trend holds in 2019, the BJP’s recent political dominance would appear to harm its prospects of retaining its parliamentary majority. Winning power in India is one thing, but staying in power is an entirely different matter.
Matthew Lillehaugen was a 2017–2018 junior fellow at Carnegie. This article is part of the “India Elects 2019” series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Times.